PHOENIX -- Spring Training is about three months away, but Maryvale Baseball Park is open for business. It never really closes. From February through March, players are there for Spring Training. From April through May, some participate in extended Spring Training. From June through August, players participate in the Arizona Rookie League. September and October is instructional league. All the while, players come in and out for rehabilitation assignments and training. November through January might seem like the only period that the future stars of the organization have some time to relax, but Maryvale is still buzzing during that time with players participating in the Winter Development Program.
"We really are working on creating that complete player," said Reid Nichols, Brewers special assistant to the general manager and player development director. "This program is really about setting a foundation for the rest of their careers. It is just a way to give them a good base, get them stronger, faster and smarter." Currently in its fifth year, the Brewers Winter Development Program is aimed at having players prepare for the upcoming season in a structured environment. It is open to any player in the team's system, and some players receive a scholarship to participate. It is mostly made up of younger players, and anywhere from 35-55 players participate each year. The program is divided into three sessions. The first two sessions are each two weeks long and focus mostly on conditioning. With the players just coming off a long professional season, this part of the program was developed to give players a bit of a mental break following the season. "This is still intense training," Nichols said. "But it isn't the baseball mental grind they are used to during the season. We try and take baseball out of the equation and focus on the conditioning to give players that break. We still try and do everything with a little bit of competition to keep the intensity up." A typical day during the first session of camp includes general conditioning workouts, speed training, vision training and lifting. Players also travel in vans to the local Lifetime Fitness Center, where they participate in weekly spin, pilates, yoga and water aerobics classes. "It is nice to switch things up a little bit and get them off the complex," said assistant player development director Tony Diggs, who organizes the schedule of the program. "Those classes give them a pretty good core routine. It is good for them to see the different ways they can condition their bodies." Ultimate Frisbee is a group favorite during the winter program and bowling nights are also a part of the schedule. "We like to keep the atmosphere light, while at the same time make sure they are getting their work in," said Diggs. "We also like to emphasize camaraderie and teamwork among the players as they will all be coming up together in the organization and building a future together. The bowling tournament can get pretty competitive." Camaraderie between players is one thing, Nichols said, but it also helps with staff. "It is good to get to know the players on a personal note and for them to get to know us," Nichols said. "We want to have that relationship with the players and vice versa because it is important to develop that bond of trust with the players." As a part of the program, players also work on off-the-field life skills that come along with being a professional baseball player. The team participates in community service activities and has worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs, Children's Hospital, Phoenix-area food banks and, most recently, the Special Olympics. "These players need to be prepared for this type of thing as they will be doing community service and giving back at every professional level," Diggs said. Players even traveled to a fine-dining restaurant in the Phoenix area and took etiquette lessons from restaurant staff. "We really don't want to take things for granted, especially with some of the younger guys," Nichols said. "A lot of these guys will being going to many nice dinners throughout their careers with agents and other business people. It just comes back to our goal of creating a complete player." In the past, sessions on financial planning, English classes (for Spanish-speaking players) and Spanish classes (for English-speaking players) have been offered to players. The program is currently in a break, with the second session beginning on Nov. 28. When the third session starts following the holiday season, Diggs notices the numbers grow in the workouts. "We begin to focus more on baseball in the third session," Diggs said. "This will take them right into Spring Training. The conditioning that they learned in the first two sessions is continued with the third session, but the focus now turns to baseball and more traditional baseball-related drills." Brewers outfielder Corey Hart, pitcher Mitch Stetter and, while he was a member of the Brewers, shortstop J.J. Hardy, all have been regular participants in the third phase of the program. All three are residents of the Phoenix area and used the program to prepare for Spring Training. Current Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain is a graduate of the full Winter Development Program. The program is a part of the organization's overall goal of making Maryvale Baseball Park a place where the younger players in the organization can go to build a foundation for their futures and the future of the Brewers. "We tell our players that we are open for business here at Maryvale anytime," said Nichols. "We want our players to utilize what we have to offer them because it will make them better players."
John Steinmiller works in the Brewers front office and contributes to a blog, John & Cait Plus Nine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.